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Amateur naturalists deserve more support and fewer barriers (commentary)

  • In the age of iNaturalist when tools are reopening the hallowed tradition of the amateur naturalist, it is perhaps time to address the ways institutions can encourage–rather than discourage–this growing movement.
  • With the world faced with a decline in trained, salaried naturalists and biodiversity institutes, we desperately need to elevate and champion the amateurs who are willing to interpret and speak up for wildlife, a new op-ed argues.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

It may be a straw man argument to suggest a distinction between an amateur and professional naturalist (a word that may still mean something). “Natural history” was once like history itself in a spectrum from archaeologists, museum curators and trained historians to best-selling if sometimes questionable historical aficionados. A disjunction between amateur and professional naturalists is by degrees now greater as it involves more science.

The modern professional naturalist is often someone who works for an institute after completing a PhD and a post-doctorate. Their status is reflected in the funding they receive – and it seems that generous donors are not too far behind, who support not just them but their team, if not an entire laboratory dedicated to a branch of animal or plant research under their command. Post-doctorate positions, if you can find them, may be a useful if not essential rung up this path, and may be quite lavish in themselves – so much so that the “post-doc” may be a great job with greater potential such that many biologists engage serially in more than one. In a recent tweet, a salaried American wildlife biologist stated:

“Many postdocs are rightfully looking for job security with fair salaries, vacation time, retirement plans, and strong unions. But research is also reliant on university resources like library and journal subscriptions, IACUC protocols, high performance servers, etc. [Twitter: unabridged]” (11/10/21).

Portrait of naturalist/explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806, via Wikipedia, Public Domain.

It is widely established that the study of zoology and botany is in decline with a taxonomic impediment. This at a time when the service of those trained in such subjects is needed more than ever before, as more and more wild plants and animals face tremendous population declines or imminent extinction. Academic zoology and botany departments are shutting down partly due to lack of students, replaced by biomedicine while dedicated public institutes fold or contract under funding pressure. Available staff recruitment can be very competitive – science recruitment in many museums is often contingent upon how much research money they may attract. Many students who complete excellent biodiversity PhDs will enter paid employment far removed from such disciplines. Any dreams they have to further their studies may resemble a forbidding maze.

Author Richard Conniff (The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, Norton 2010) describes an age when being a naturalist was almost a spectator sport. Naturalists combined careers as civil administrators (Allan Octavian Hume), explorers (Alexander Humboldt), missionaries (Stephen Hislop), those in the military (Captain Meriwether Lewis), physicians (Edward Kelaart), planters (WWA Phillips), clergymen (Gilbert White) among many others including schoolteachers, forest officers and even royalty. Others made a living through wildlife collecting (Henry Bates), writings, art (Marianne North) and writers turned professional conservationists like Gerald Durrell.

As a rough rule of thumb, amateur natural historians were not or are not paid regularly for their scientific or taxonomic output. Charles Darwin was among the greatest and had inherited wealth to fund his work, but an inheritance was not normative for traditional naturalists, as is often assumed. Alfred Wallace started as a poor, paid collector with a number of disasters that didn’t seem to put him off. A paid museum curator such as Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was mostly an amateur, but the demarcation between amateur and professional gets fuzzier towards our time.

Maybe being an amateur is not possible anymore? Conniff replies to the above tweet thread,

“In fairness to today’s postdocs, [Marianne] North, Humboldt, and many of those I profiled in The Species Seekers enjoyed the support of wealthy or well-connected families” – adding “I suppose self-funding is possible today, but not many naturalists have the charisma or social media savvy to go viral (in a good way)” (11/10/21).

The culture of academia has moved in a direction that is very restrictive to amateurs, even those who could afford to pay for their research. In the recent past, a Masters or PhD in a subject could earn you a professional lecturer position. As such positions dried up or were cut, a post-doctorate and a decent slew of publications has become almost de rigueur, before you could even qualify for stable employment at an institute.

Marianne North, naturalist and painter.

In the publications sector, things have also become more restrictive for wildlife. Observational studies are discouraged, replaced by data and hypotheses driven papers – those based on specimens including fossils and commoner organisms have expanded given field work may be labor-intensive, time-consuming, expensive and chancy.

Studies of the rarest plants and animals have suffered the most. Most well-cited papers are staggeringly multi-author (thanks to technical or time constraints in a highly competitive culture) and the best, smaller team or single author papers are not necessarily in high impact journals. Most journals regrettably expect or assume their authors possess institutional affiliation – especially galling for those authors who have little, none, or are not interested in such. Botany with the assistance of agriculture and botanical institutes like Kew may be in a stronger position than arthropods, entomology and zoology, with no equivalent support.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has certainly not helped as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, and has made access to wildlife research, especially in the Global South or tropical regions, extremely restrictive. In the worst situations, governments not otherwise too interested in their own wildlife effectively hold a “copyright” on it, barring international or even local researchers who may be genuinely interested in further exploration. It can be illegal even to rescue wild animals on trumped up charges of biopiracy! There were no less than 172 co-signatories in Prathapan et. al., in Science (“When the cure kills—CBD limits biodiversity research”) in case the despair cannot be heard.

These shifts have generated a two–tier division in wildlife work between an increasingly institutionalized academia vs bands of amateurs or non-academic professionals who engage in conservation using clubs, societies, NGOs or photography and wildlife films and related popularization. Science has not always advanced or been instrumental in conservation gains. As an example, climate change and its amelioration seem often divorced from the biodiversity conservation movement. Indeed, atmospheric science, food research and nature conservation seem to be treated as separate disciplines creating conflicting policy and resourcing outcomes.

See related: Online citizen science data platforms help scientists predict species ranges

Trees laden with epiphytes in a Brazilian garden, by Marianne North, 1873, via The Public Catalogue Foundation.

Given cuts in funding to biodiversity institutes since the 1990s, Covid-19 has dealt a hammer blow to institutes dependent on visitors, and not just zoos or botanic gardens, and any associated research. This crisis is echoed in collapses that took place across the former USSR after the fall of communism, when many scientists were reduced to the breadline.

Many institutes still survive on small armies of amateurs – they are called volunteers – typically somewhat wealthy, retired or part-time individuals who can afford to provide one or more days in exchange for a sandwich and a little travel money. Some may work without pay for decades before earning themselves a paid position. Thanks to low pay and poor employment prospects, the professional standards at such institutes have sometimes fallen, such as the presence of under-qualified editorial or curatorial staff who often can’t or won’t bother to reply to detailed journal submission proposals, among other outsider inquiries. Preserved specimens may suffer in understaffed but imperial-sized collections.

But maybe there could be glimmers of hope, and the role of the amateur is increasing in clout? Thanks to social media, taxonomic databases like iNaturalist, and important journals and books from the past scanned into online resources like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, there are at least a few who keep making vital contributions to taxonomy and conservation and get published, even if they may do so, or start the hard way, as amateurs. This trend may now be growing.

Sir David Attenborough is among the best known people in the amateur naturalist vein. Photo courtesy of Eden Project.

Self-funding a PhD remains possible and relatively cheap, especially, on a part time basis. The CBD cannot prevent the passage of audio-visual files and digitized specimens, and some of those volunteers could become helpful leaders to represent biodiversity. It may be not enough to get published – now your publication can also be podcasted for added relevance. However, institutes and journals may need to catch up.

Many former amateur taxonomists (in a modern sense, often unsalaried) had a few or strings of mammal publications such as Kathleen Ryley (active ~1914), Robert C Wroughton (active ~1904-1920) or JR Ellerman (~1950-60) in the British Museum of Natural History. As an amateur, I have inquired about institutional affiliation from places like the Zoological Society of London – can we use our fellowships in a qualified way to assist with our publications if we can use their address and some of their expertise?

The answer was no, but subsidized fellowships (by the fellows) could possibly go beyond just being a bunch of letters to sprinkle after your name such as FZS or FLS. Maybe there could be more opportunities for unpaid but independently-funded scientists who do wish to contribute to biodiversity and represent an institute, say at a place like the State Darwin Museum in Russia that may not be able to afford international salaried expertise? In the internet age, money itself may be less of a hurdle than affiliations, linkages and peer support. The original quote about post-doctorates is not something biodiversity can afford, and not just financially. Biodiversity desperately needs representation and there are reasons for this lack.

A few well supported amateurs without suitable institutional support simply create their own institutes and even journals. Others may collaborate with established scientists to generate taxonomic publications. The horizons of wildlife filmmaking are expanding, and many producers also have PhDs.

Quite a few, arguably recent, amateurs or those who started as such may be identified, some who have risen to great heights of science and/or conservation – even spurning professionalism in the process. Rohan Pethiyagoda (zoologist, ichthyologist and herpetologist), Darren Naish (paleontologist), the late Elaine Morgan, David Attenborough, Desmond Morris and even Ken Livingstone (who collected frogs). The naturalist role may have been temporary or part-time, but can certainly enhance conservation compared to most biology that is usually disconnected with wildlife interests.

See related: Sri Lanka’s budding biologists get their science on with iNaturalist

Anya Ratnayaka, left, puts a radio collar on a fishing cat with the assistance of Department of Wildlife Conservation officials. Image courtesy of the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project.

In a Sri Lankan context, examples include Deepal Warakagoda (ornithologist & wildlife sound recorder) and upcoming field workers or conservationists like Amila Sumanapala (discovered a new dragonfly) and Anya Ratnayaka (fishing cats) and the late, great, Thilo Hoffman (Douglas Ranasinghe, The Faithful Foreigner: Thilo Hoffman, the man who saved Sinharaja, A. Bauer & Co., 2015). The amateur has been a historical lynchpin for biodiversity and conservation – failure to translate the Species Seekers into reality by struggling institutes is due to a lack of vision and creativity. Fortunately, out of an online sphere, things are beginning to change and the world’s biodiversity hotspots still beckon.

In a world faced with a decline in trained, salaried naturalists and biodiversity institutes, we desperately need to elevate and champion the amateurs, educated and with broader shoulders, who are willing to interpret and speak up for wildlife. Biodiversity services such as oxygenation, hydration and pollination come free of charge. Real naturalists don’t necessarily need steady salaries, unions and pension-plans – they are often represented by networks of amateurs, volunteers and Indigenous communities, too often overlooked by a hegemon of institutionalized science. Observational wildlife studies and active conservation is ill-served by a ponderous peer review process that paywalls most of its content (Stuart Ritchie: Science Fictions, Penguin, 2020).

This culture is hopefully shifting, allowing a better integration between the arts and commerce to enhance and cherish naturalists and biodiversity. As for those institutes and journals stuck in their bean-counting ways, window-dressed with platitudes about “diversity” – they certainly don’t mean biodiversity.


Rajith Dissanayake earned a PhD studying Funambulus palm squirrels and works at Birkbeck College/University of London. Find his latest thinking on Twitter via @Lanka_Wildlife.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: The UN’s executive secretary for the Convention on Biological Diversity discusses progress on that agreement’s upcoming (COP15) negotiations, and the role of youth and Indigenous leaders in that process, listen here:

Related reading: Explore the work of Anya Ratnayaka with fishing cats, as mentioned above:

In Sri Lanka, a wild cat thrives in the unlikely urban jungle of Colombo